Jessica Maguire is the founder of The Nervous System School, which helps students overcome chronic nervous system dysregulation.

Jessica Maguire on helping women to reset their nervous systems

In our latest Female Founders instalment, we spoke to Jessica Maguire about pivoting from life as a physiotherapist to building an online education platform that helps students beat burnout.

Let’s face it – with traditional doctors routinely underestimating women’s pain and suffering – there's room in the market for places that take women’s pain seriously and help them alleviate it so they can live better and more fulfilled lives. 

That’s exactly what Jessica Maguire, founder of The Nervous System School, is helping her students do. After spending 14 years as a physiotherapist, Jessica realised that for many of her patients, chronic nervous system dysregulation underlay a lot the issues that they presented with. From there, she dove into expanding her knowledge-base, with certifications in mindfulness-based teaching practices to vagal nerve theory. 

At a cafe in Bangalow, we ran into The Nervous System School’s operations manager Ana, and felt an instant wave of calm waft emanating from her presence. This experience alone got us to take the product seriously – a real “I’ll have what she’s having" kinda moment.

From sold out in person workshops to educational online courses, we spoke to Jessica Maguire about the science underpinning The Nervous System school, and how she's helping students find agency beyond living in chronic stress and anxiety.

Natasha Gillezeau: So Jessica – the motto for The Nervous System School is “when you change your nervous system, you change your life”. Can you please talk me through what this means? 

Jessica Maquire: We could look at this more from the vagus nerve perspective – because that’s predominantly what we base a lot of our teachings around. A lot of people think it’s like, one nerve that you can just hack and everything will feel better – like just do deep breathing exercises, or have a cold shower. But we approach it as is more of an ecosystem – it runs from the brainstem to the heart. And that regulatory part controls the nervous system in a way that can reduce anxiety, so it’s like a cornerstone for our emotional health. And then, if we’re looking at the part that runs from the brain stem right down to the lower belly, that touches almost every organ, and it improves physical health. Then there’s a branch that runs from the heart up to the face that’s involved in communication. So, we think that our nervous system is just ours inside, but it’s communicating all the time with people outside of us, and we’re being impacted by other peoples’ nervous systems. Like your experience with Ana.

Totally. And I’m sure Ana’s not calm allll the time, but she is very calming. 

She's an incredible co-regulator. When she smiles, her whole face lights up, and that actually communicates to our brain outside of conscious awareness, signals of safety.

It’s also interesting in leadership roles is that employees will sync to the leaders heart rate variability, but it doesn’t go the other way around, so leaders become this mirror. So you can think of managers and leaders as “nerve centres” that people will mirror around, affecting their whole physiology.

I’ve heard the expression before that “hurt people hurt people, and settled bodies settle bodies”. What does this idea mean to you? 

I think it’s coming back to this sense of co-regulation. If we think about our nervous system as a thermostat in a house – and sometimes when we’ve got challenges, the temperature goes up a bit higher, or it might go a bit colder, but ideally, we want to come back to that set point where we feel the most comfortable.

People who are at their baseline will actually help to coax our nervous system back towards ours. We see it in parents and calming down their children, and we think that it’s only that children need co-regulation. They’re completely reliant upon the sound of someone else’s voice, on touch, reciprocity – but what’s interesting is that we still need that as we get older. No matter how good we get at self-regulating – we will always long for co-regulation. But it can go the other way as well – in that we can be co-disregulators. So if someone is highly anxious, or in a state of shutdown, we can move away from our baseline. 

How then can we be good nervous system buddies to our friends, colleagues, and loved ones? 

I think back to when I started as a physiotherapist, and a lot of that was with people who were having persistent pain, anxiety, they would be dysregulated. I realised that I had to switch the way that I saw things in that co-regulation was part of the treatment. I never learned that at uni. It was like, you get people in, you do this, you do that, you give them a list of exercises to go home with. But the shift in perspective was like, thinking about the co-regulation piece, and realising that’s how their body will return to the optimal state for growth and repair.

That also meant that I had to learn my own limits – and knowing where I was being pushed, and I was starting to hurry, and I’m getting urgency, so recognising that I’m shifting outside of the “window of tolerance” into my sympathetic nervous system, which means I’m giving cues to others that there’s a threat.

For someone going through The Nervous System School for the first time, what can they expect? What do people typically feel before, during, and after? 

The biggest change is where people start seeing these responses of the nervous system with a little bit more space. So you know when you start to feel anxious – you get swept up in it. You’re worrying, you’re hurrying, and you have that feeling inside of you – you’re inside of that. But once you start to see it as this is a response of my nervous system, it’s not actually me, then there’s more space. 

Like getting out of that reactive mode, to a more purposeful mode. 

Exactly. So many people ask me: what’s the one best technique to regulate my nervous system? And you really can’t just pick one, because it depends. If you’re up here (indicates with hand) and you’re really anxious, then you’re going to do something different than if you’re down here (indicates with hand), and depressed, and that’s in line with neuroplasticity, where what you use needs to be specific to the state that you’re in. We really lean into complexities. 

How do you see that helping your customers/students? 

What we hear back from people who have been through the program is that first of all, is that the state of suffering from being “stuck” in states of dysregulation has improved. 

So people almost internalise the “states” as a sense of self, rather than a state that they’ve gotten trapped in. But to your neuroplasticity point – it’s like no, this is a state that you’ve gotten trapped in, and movement is possible. 

So if you think of this sense of self – there is no fixed sense of self when it comes to neuroscience. It’s actually a dynamic process of communication between the body and brain. So you don’t have this fixed sense of who I am, it’s been constructed, and it’s constructed a lot by the messages that the vagus nerve is sending from the body up to the brain. And 80 per cent of the vagus nerve are running upwards. If you had eight highways of traffic going up, you’ve got two going down. 

But when we’re looking at chronic and traumatic stress, we’ve got a society saying “change your mindset”, “be more positive”, and “let it go”. But most of the messages are coming up from the body into the brain. So it doesn’t work with people who are chronically stressed or have gone through traumatic stress, because where we need to communicate are in these lower states of the brain.

If you identify as “I’m an anxious person, I’m this”, you’re simply more overprotected from what’s learned in the past. Yes, it could be a traumatic experience, but it could also be a long period of stress without the drop back down. If we can teach people that’s not who you are, it’s a response of the nervous system, that in itself gives people a sense of freedom, and realise they can play a role in it. 

This makes me think of a great book called Burnout by Emily and Amelia Nagoski, which dives into science-based tools for dealing with stress and overwhelm. In it, Nagoski argues that we walk around with years of accumulated stress cycles, and that we need to close the loop by feeling those emotions all the way through. She talks about the power of laughter, crying, exercise, sex, and endorphins for getting our emotions moving. What are your thoughts on this? Where does that fit into The Nervous System School paradigm? 

If you think about it, stress is a natural response that mobilizes energy to meet demands. Fully recovering from stress is beneficial, as it enhances our ability to cope in the future. Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response), which can manifest as urgency, anxiety, focus, or drive.

Ideally, after the stressor passes, both the sympathetic and vagus nerve systems return to normal, marked by a sense of discharge or closure.

Chronic stress disrupts this balance, with the vagus nerve becoming less active and the sympathetic system staying elevated, affecting our ability to regulate stress responses. This imbalance can be triggered by subconscious perceptions of safety or threat based on past experiences.

Ultimately, what determines trauma is subjective, and is influenced by genetics, values, culture, and personal history, but its impact on the nervous system, seen in conditions like PTSD, highlights its lasting effects. [MP note: we summarised Jessica's response here for brevity]

Right, so it’s just the valence of it is a lot higher. Extending on self-care and Emily Nagoski – she argues that a lot of self-care has blindspots to issues like patriarchy. She has this theory that men are conditioned to be human “beings”, and women are conditioned to be human “givers” – giving every ounce of their being to supporting others and being coded as selfish if they direct those resources back to themselves. Do you ever think about the role of patriarchy and sexism in your work?

There are so many interesting trends we could go into. I’m a Mum, so I totally get this on the lines of "giving". We can look at it from a biology point of view – what I see happens a lot is that women feel that there are certain parts of their nervous system they shouldn’t experience. So anger – they get this sympathic response of anger – where it’s warranted too, I’m not talking about flipping out. 

Like clean anger, when there has been a boundary violation. 

Exactly. Let’s say we have that mobilisation of our nervous system – what does it do? First of all, it makes us move towards, or move away. So because the thought of anger is “wrong” or “bad” – so women will tend to push it down. So what then happens is instead of having that completion of the stress reaction cycle, instead of being able to complete it, I won’t say it’s always when with another man, but just being smaller than a man in itself, there is that difference in power dynamics. The fact that anger is labeled as bad – as a judgement over what’s happening in the body – it creates a “don’t let these feelings come up, push it down”, which then usually results in a shut down process or an internalisation. There is research to show that women tend to internalise when they have nervous system dysregulation, which will mean it turns into shame, which will mean it turns into self-blame, which means it turns more into this other state, immobilisation. You see it viscerally in people when they’re starting to slouch, their energy comes down, if we do that chronically, it turns into burnout. 

So – if we suppress that anger – it’s there to say use your strength, stand up. But it’s been culturally conditioned in us to be “nice”, and there’s research to show that angry women lose respect as opposed to men. Because we’re getting those messages, it turns into shame, and women feel “okay, I have to be the nice one, I have to care for everyone else”. We’ll look to keep the connection as a priority, over say a man is more likely to say “I don’t like that, I don’t want that, we’re doing this”.

Walk us through “fight, flight, freeze and fawn”. How can we get better at identifying those states in ourselves and others? 

If we were looking at “freeze”, it’s this wide-eyed look. People will describe “my feet are stuck on the ground, but I’ve got all this activation going through my body”. As soon as you’d hear something along those lines, you’d be like yeah, that’s freeze. A person who’s in a state of collapse, they are slouched, there is a vacant look … that’s “flight”. It’s almost like they’ve withdrawn or left their bodies. “Fight” you’ll see a more monotone voice or lack of expression in the upper face. But we teach our students to recognise these states in themselves before trying to recognise them in others. 

When it comes to having a compassionate understanding – the piece there is that these behaviours make sense when you look at them through this lens. Like, we see people in the sympathetic state for a long period of time – they tend to criticise, blame, or interrupt. They might start arguments, or storm off. 

The image that comes to mind as you say that – and this is a personal experience, I’m 31 now, but when I was in high school, my parents separated when I was 16. And that whole post period with my Mum, she was obviously so stressed moving from having that support of being with my Dad to supporting me and my brother. But a lot of criticism from her, storming off from me – and she was a loving, incredible Mum when we were growing up, very secure, so this wasn’t quote unquote “her”. But I like that lens of being compassionate about her behaviour during that confined period of time. 

It’s so amazing that you can see that. Because this is my concern when we talk about trauma so much – are we going to feel that that was childhood trauma? And for some people – it could have been really difficult. But are we going to go so far that we lose our ability to have our resilience and say, that was that period of time, and that makes sense. But I think this is why we’ve got to look at it as “dysregulation” rather than trying to have a label on it as “trauma” or “not trauma”, and if it was, there is a resolution for a lot of people, it doesn’t stay that way forever. 

Totally. Okay, pivot here. What’s the business model of The Nervous System school? How has that evolved? 

It started with workshops for patients just on the nervous system to try and help them. It was really to tap into that paradigm of you can look at your health issues through “just the nervous system responding”. One of my mentors did this really interesting research where he took a lady, and did a functional MRI of her brain, and then he educated her on pain, and the threat of it, and then he got her to do the same task again, and there was so much less activity in pain centres because she’d had that education. So the education alone was changing how the brain was processing pain.

Brains are wild - so even understanding HOW the nervous system world has an effect on the pain centres in the brain?

Yep, so she didn’t experience as much pain through the reappraisal of it. It’s like how understanding anxiety gives you distance from it. So if you think about people who have anxiety – it’s almost like the volume is too loud on a lot of their bodily sensations. And for people on the more depressed side, the volume is too low on a lot of their bodily sensations. And once you can change how the body and brain are communicating – like pain – it will change the way they process sensations. So I was working with people with persistent pain, also PTSD, chronic gut health issues – they come in with a cluster of symptoms.

I started running workshops in person, they kept filling up, we were getting about 80 people per event, and then we switched to online. We started with a 2 hour masterclass where we went through all of the science of it, and gave people resources of videos and audios. And it just took off. The people who first did it loved it, and they were referring it to others. And then we developed a 6-week vagus nerve program, so people would do the masterclass first, and then the program. Now, we’ve introduced a nervous system certification course, which has come about because people want to work out how to integrate it into their workforce. 

You mentioned before how employees will adapt to their leaders. I remember speaking to Nick Crocker at Australian venture capital firm Blackbird, and he told me that for better or worse, companies will reflect their founders or leaders right down to their biorhythms. 

It’s totally true. 

It’s puts a new level of responsibility on you as a leader because it’s not just about you anymore. 

Right out to your customers! To the outward facing things that they see. It’s interesting how your own inner workings will filter out through the whole business, but particularly I would say, nervous system states, because most of that stuff is happening outside your conscious awareness. There’s a real responsibility as a leader. If you need time off, take a day off. If you need a day to reset, and that will flow on nicely to your team – then that’s a good decision.

How do you discern between what’s evidence-based and what’s misinformation in the nervous system space?

I get so fired up about this. For nervous system work – what I hear is “if you want to recover from trauma, just do slow, deep breathing exercises, just lengthen the exhalation”. For those people in the shut down, immobilized state - slow deep breathing is going to make them feel worse. What’s happened in the vagus nerve - pulling on the hand brake has put them into energy conservation as a protective state on the nervous system. Any info that’s like “just do this” - it’s too simple. Nervous system work is not simple. The key is about retraining our nervous system so it’s responding to what's happening today, not what’s in the past. 

Is there anything unique to your approaches to commerce and creativity on the build side of things? 

At The Nervous System School, we prioritised trying to talk about things in a way that wasn’t trying to ‘trick’ the algorithm.

I understand the students that we’re talking to, because I treated them for so long as a physiotherapist, but also because of the times in my life when I’ve hit burnout, and coming in with that same sense of connection and genuinely wanting people to have a paradigm shift from what I was sharing.

Rather than having a “How can we get them? How can we get them on the list?” It was about seeing them, and educating them through our content, and I think that comes down to empathy. 

Thank you so much for your time Jessica. This has been absolutely fascinating. 

Jessica Maguire on … 3 vagus nerve tips 

1. The power of movement

“I”m a mover. It’s walking, in nature, by the ocean. I find sitting still for long periods of time – I’ve got to get up and move”. 

  1. It's not all in your head

“That most of the communication is from the body to the brain. I think once people see where the vagus nerve it travels, and people see how it moves from the gut to the brain, otherwise it’s a bit conceptual. I’m also going to say that aspect that it’s relational - that we are picking up on those circuits around us.

  1. Go within

My favourite Nervous System School exercise would be on interoception - so learning to read our internal bodily signals. What a big part of changing the subconscious mind, or the implicit memories, or stress memories, is tapping into those lower centres. You know when someone is triggered, and there’s that huge visceral response that’s really fast? This is learning about how to settle that first, or having that confidence and trust in the bodily signals that we’re getting. It’s getting people out of the cognitive, limited part into a deeper part - and that’s really where we see transformation take place. The body’s narrative is a lot more important than the cognitive sometimes.